Flashback: Returning to 'Morrowind'

Flashback: Returning to 'Morrowind'

An obvious precursor to the more well-known Bethesda games, it'd be fair to describe 'Morrowind' as the prototypical game of its kind Bethesda

We revisit the strange shores of Bethesda's 2002 masterpiece on its 15th birthday

We revisit the strange shores of Bethesda's 2002 masterpiece on its 15th birthday

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind begins with an epigraph. "Each Event is preceded by Prophecy," it reads. "But without the Hero, there is no Event." It's fitting that the game's lore should be so shamelessly meta; Morrowind is the sort of gateway drug that teaches the player how role-playing games work, and, in the process, turns them into a lifelong RPG fanatic. The game certainly was an event in its day, and I suppose anybody who played it must've felt like a hero. Almost 15 years after its 2002 release, the game still seems timeless – a rare feat for any 3D title, let alone an open-world RPG. To mark the anniversary, The Elder Scrolls Online MMO is even getting a major expansion, simply titled Morrowind, set in the beloved province.

As for the "prophecy" referred to in the game's opening cinematic, I'd like to imagine Bethesda, developer of the mainline Elder Scrolls series, somehow knew just how revelatory it was going to be – that this was their way of saying they'd made the game they set out to make. Compared with The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall's simplistic 1996 geometry, Morrowind looked vastly more convincing in all its tripped-out Tolkienesque splendor. It was also one of the first open worlds to create the illusion of a functioning virtual realm independent of our own. The citizens of Morrowind didn't stand in one place forever, waiting for the hero of prophecy to come along; they simply went about their business. It struck me as remarkable then for its novelty, and now – coming back to it all these years later – I'm delighted to find it's still a beautiful, inviting fantasy. When the pink-orange sunset in the port village of Seyda Neen meets the shimmering sea, the effect is every bit as haunting and ethereal as a J. M. W. Turner landscape.

An obvious precursor to the more well-known Bethesda games – Fallout 3 and Skyrim among them – it'd be fair to describe Morrowind as the prototypical game of its kind. You arrive on the island of Vvardenfell aboard a wooden sailship, a prisoner whose crimes are unknown. A guard comes to escort you off the ship. "Better do what they say," says Jiub, the elven prisoner you've been sharing a room with belowdecks. Upon disembarking, you're taken to the nearby census office, where a man named Socucius Ergalla (yeesh) assists you with the immigration process. You can choose to answer a series of questions to determine your character's class, pick from a list of pre-made classes, or create a custom class of your own. After doing this, you're given census papers and ordered to report to Sellus Gravius, Knight Errant of the Imperial Legion, in the adjacent building. Characters like Gravius greet you with a friendly voiceover as you approach them, but then a dialogue window opens up when it's time for you to respond. Most of Morrowind's interactions occur in text form, similar to early BioWare RPGs like Baldur's Gate.

Pretty quickly, you come to realize that this is a game where you have an underlying purpose – a destiny to guide you through the world, if you will – but it really couldn't care less whether you choose to pursue it. Like this year's Breath of the Wild or 2011's Skyrim, Morrowind is content to let the player set their own agenda, their own pace, and perform the player character as they want them to be. It's a Dungeons & Dragons-style approach that's commonplace in today's RPGs, but I'd never seen anything like it prior to playing Morrowind on the original Xbox for the first time in 2002.

Much of what we now take for granted in games like Fallout 4 or Skyrim – from the various factions (like the Brotherhood of Steel or Fighters Guild) and their unique questlines to the skill-tree-based leveling system – can be found in Morrowind. Indeed, the game explicitly tells you that you ought to seek out these trademark Bethesda sidequests as a means of getting your character leveled up before taking on the main storyline. "First thing, pilgrim. You're new. And you look it," says Caius Cosades, an Imperial spymaster who, like many of the Imperials throughout the game, bears an uncanny resemblance to the actor Sean Connery. "Go get yourself a decent weapon. Or armor. Or a spell. And second thing – you need a cover identity. Around here, 'freelance adventurer' is a common profession. Sign on with the Fighters Guild or Mages Guild or Imperial cult or Imperial legion, advance in the ranks, gain skill and experience. Or go out on your own, look for freelance work, or trouble. Then, when you're ready, come back, and I'll have orders for you."

Cosades' function, of course, is to teach you how to play this kind of RPG. But I wasn't aware of this at age 13, when I first discovered the world of Morrowind. I'd seen a preview for the game months earlier in an old issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly, and the worldbuilding looked utterly alien – an odd blend of The Legend of Zelda and Star Wars, perhaps; I was unaware at the time of J. R. R. Tolkien and the massive worldwide resurgence his work was about to undergo.

Morrowind was the perfect game for me at the time: a leap out of my comfort zone and into a landscape of dreams and nightmares where I lost myself in the thrill of exploration. And the music – there's an iconic soundtrack if I ever heard one! If Marty O'Donnell's score for Halo: Combat Evolved had set a new precedent for video game sound in 2001, then Jeremy Soule's work on the Elder Scrolls franchise can be seen as proof that it was an achievable standard. The technology to compose and record blockbuster soundtracks for games was already there; it just took a couple of pioneers to figure out how to make it work.

"I really intended to create my own musical path from the outset for The Elder Scrolls," says Soule. "And while I've certainly enjoyed the music of John Williams and other composers over the years, the adventure for me was in working with new technologies that served as the paints for my compositional canvas. I programmed and created a lot of virtual instruments that had echoes of their acoustic counterparts, but they all were unique software creatures in music. So, in some ways, not only was I making new music – I was fashioning the instruments themselves. And to me, this made for a spirit of adventure that translated into the notes of the score." Soule has written music for film, the symphony, television, and theater, as well as game properties like Guild Wars, Harry Potter, Star Wars, and World of Warcraft – but his fans know him first and foremost as the composer for The Elder Scrolls series. He says that suits him just fine.

"So many people connected with this series," he says. "And for me, this was the one franchise where I had complete freedom to make whatever I felt would work for each game. So I'm proud to say that my creative decisions were trusted from the beginning. The fact that these games were so successful was a great confirmation of the many talents that made The Elder Scrolls what it is today."

Even 15 years later, Morrowind's still an easy game to appreciate – and a fine entry point for newcomers to the series. I won't make myself wait another decade and a half to play it again.